His future is now

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

SECAUCUS -- They sat on a little platform, one guy in a navy suit, the younger guy in pinstripes and charcoal grey.

Mario Lemieux sat behind an empty water glass. Sidney Crosby's was full.

Today, Lemieux woke up to his first day as a 40-year-old. Today, Crosby, a sprite at 18, plays his first regular-season NHL game against the New Jersey Devils.

The importance of those twin events yesterday drew 10 or so media members from Canada and even one or two from far-away New York, to the Penguins hotel. Stories are nicer when they come with glaring angles. The dais accommodated one man facing the twilight of a brilliant career, another facing his future at dawn. Easy enough.

The NHL always has been blessed with an enviable sense of succession. Maurice Richard gave way to Jean Beliveau who in turn groomed Guy Lafleur. Wayne Gretzky brought the phenomenon to its nadir at the 1987 Canada Cup when he flipped a pass to Lemieux for the tournament-winning goal in Hamilton.

Lemieux, 22 and always good, became great and won the first of his three Hart and six Art Ross Trophies the next winter.

"I think the Canada Cup really changed the way I played the game afterwards," he said. "I really learned to play and practice with those guys and how to be a winner. I learned it from Gretzky, from (Mark) Messier, Paul Coffey was there, Ray Bourque."

The lessons were simple enough.

"I watched these guys work, not only in games but especially in practice," Lemieux said. "That's what you have to do as a youngster, try to get to the top as quickly as possible."

The challenge for Crosby is to emulate Lemieux, who in his first game in 1984 blocked a pass and then beat Boston goalie Pete Peeters. It was Lemieux's first shift. Crosby might find it takes a little longer.

Greatness in today's sports universe also comes with magazine covers and feature interviews. Crosby has been in GQ and Vanity Fair. Gretzky says the kid someday will commandeer his scoring records.

To do it, he'll need not just ego and humility, but the proper measure of both. There are several elements of Crosby's game that are more fitting for a 27-year-old. Diligence and perspective are two of them.

"I think you have to prove that you're the best year after year and show it by winning," Crosby said when asked if he burned to be a great player. "I'm going into my first game (today). Maybe after a player has played several years. Someone like Tiger Woods has won championships. He can say that."

Lemieux, of course, is loving it.

"His work ethic is probably the best that I've ever seen with an 18- to 19-year-old. His work ethic is there, the talent is there. Put those two together, I think he'll be okay."

Crosby, of course, has the benefit of timing. The Penguins have solid talent. New interpretation of the rules should free him to perform.

"He's coming in at a time where he'll have a chance to succeed," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur told a media gaggle yesterday.

"Hockey needs faces like that to be recognized. Yes, there's a lot of pressure but on the other hand he's coming in in an era that gives him an opportunity to succeed without the holding, the grabbing and the clutching."

It is an era welcomed by Lemieux, who would benefit just as much as Crosby. He has weathered an entire Old Testament's worth of obstacles, most recently hip problems, to return.

"I'll reassess at the end of the year but as long as I stay healthy, I'd love to play," he said.

Everyone else would like him to play as well. There is room in the world for one more great season for Mario Lemieux, especially one that will send Sidney Crosby onto his glittering future.


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